Liquid Email

We are rapidly detouring into the web of flow, leaving the static web of pages behind. (Or more accurately, covering the web of pages with a layer of liquid media, so that we will increasingly not notice the static URLs down there, except as IDs that can be used to fetch content, and yank it into the liquid context of the web of flow.)

Paradoxically, the places with the strongest flow will seem the most calm, because we won’t be jumping from the stream to the browser and back again a hundred times a day: we will stay in the stream: media content will be harvested, and pulled into context for us.

I am using the term liquid media to represent this new soupy, swirling, turbulent cascade of various media types being pulled into the streaming mess of today’s social media. We see images resolved in Twitter clients without leaving the Twitter stream, and Flipboard yanking articles free of their moorings on the NY Times or Wired, and previewing them for us in the article stream. Every sort of media will be pulled into the flow: soon, television will be repurposed as yet-another-media-type and played in the stream like audio is now.

This is all happening because we will naturally gravitate to the place with the fastest tempo, because the best stuff appears there first. Paradoxically, the places with the strongest flow will seem the most calm, because we won’t be jumping from the stream to the browser and back again a hundred times a day: we will stay in the stream: media content will be harvested, and pulled into context for us.

I think this is going to happen next with email.

Email has its own context: the inbox, the email apps, Outlook. The metaphor is now second nature to us: email comes in, from anyone having our email address, maybe is filtered and categorized, but mostly is shown as a chronological list of discrete messages. If we are lucky, our email tool ties together email threads, although that mechanism is semantically flawed, because a single email can deal with many topics. As a result, email is as messy as we are. But more structure won’t help email. The problem is the metaphor, and as a result, how the metaphor channels our thinking about communication.

Using a beta version of Nimble has caused me to think about a fusion of Twitter and email. That product manages to support both email and Twitter, but not in the way that I am envisioning, although the app is inventive and likely to be a good social CRM offering.

Imagine a liquid model of email, based on Twitter being my preferred context for communication:

  1. I receive email in Gmail. 
  2. A new Twitter client (or a new version of Twitter) – let’s call it Liquidate – captures all my incoming emails from Gmail, and drops a shortened link into my stream for each, with the subject line as the tweet, and associating the email address of the sender to their Twitter handle, if known.
  3. The fact that this is an email would be made obvious in the UI, and I could open the text of the mail – and bring it right into context – by clicking on a link.
  4. I could read the email text, and then respond to the sender either by a Twitter message, direct message, or another email, depending on the circumstance, and based on various criteria, like whether the sender has a Twitter account.
  5. If I opt to reply by email, the client would send that into Gmail, and I would always have Gmail as a repository, if I want to search there.

In essence, I would be treating email messages as just a long format tweet, and using Gmail as an appliance to carry that message from my streaming context out to a world that has not completely switched to Twitter or liquid media. But the activities associated with ‘email’ would be carried out in the streaming context, and the email would be just another sort of media pulled into and then pushed out of the stream. And again, I would always be able to go to Gmail directly, if needed.

The question of how much of this email should be public and how much kept private is a very complex one. I am not advocating a general policy of taking all emails and automatically sharing them with all followers, per se. On the other hand, I might start using slight Gmail-supported variants of my email address for different constituencies – like versus – and at the same time tweeking Liquidate to take the appropriate actions with the associated messages. 

Imagine the scenario of an interaction with customer support at Cablevision. I might want to have that discussion completely in the open, with all tweets and emails available for my community to observe. On the other hand, my interaction with a bank or my realtor might be better kept confidential.

And in such a situation, I would want the email text to be publicly available, or published to a public location. Today, Gmail doesn’t support that, but Liquidate could do that: taking emails – that are all private today – and publishing those that I have marked as public.

And I will just close with an observation: this scenario of use makes sense because the continuity of communication is more important than the communication mode. If I am having a Twitter conversation with a pal, and I need to write something six paragraphs long, it’s annoying to write ‘taking this to email’, and then switch to my email tool. The thread of discussion is broken, and is never tied back together.

I think Google, Microsoft and Apple would both be well-served to implement liquid clients like this, well-integrated with their email services, and also coupled to winning social streams like Facebook and Twitter. Google should have done something like this instead of Buzz, I think. But I bet that the email giants will wait too long, and some upstart, like Nimble or Tweetdeck, will hit upon the right combination of features that comes to define the next generation of email tools, based on a metaphor along the lines I have sketched out.

Anyone working on a product like this should certainly contact me.

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